By BRUCE DENNILL
Jonathan Roxmouth: From The Footlights / Teatro, Montecasino, Fourways, Johannesburg
It must be said up front that, in the South African theatre context, mounting a solo show in a 1 700-seat venue takes enormous, steel-plated gonads, regardless of the reputation of the performer.
Jonathan Roxmouth is, though still a young man, hugely experienced at the highest level in musical theatre – 550 performances as the Phantom in Phantom Of The Opera alone (locally and on international tours). But more than that, he has fantastic institutional knowledge: he knows more than 99% of his audience about his subject matter, and he’s not afraid to display that insight.
For this reason, fans heading to From The Footlights expecting a middle-of-the-road greatest hits package will likely be disappointed. The setlist does include All That Jazz (Chicago), I Don’t Know How To Love Him (Jesus Christ Superstar), Bring Him Home (Les Miserables) and Music Of The Night (Phantom Of The Opera). But spread among those standards are numbers generally better known to musicals aficionados: When I Get My Name In Lights (The Boy From Oz) – pointedly put right up front – Being Alive (Company), Honestly Sincere (Bye Bye Birdie) and ‘Til I Hear You Sing (from the underwhelming Phantom sequel Love Never Dies) are just some of the left-of-centre choices included in the 20-song performance.
But what a performance it is. Roxmouth has always been a fine singer, but this show sees him reveal a more certain, assured voice to go with the well-honed charm-plus-humour routine that makes him so consistently entertaining on any stage. He’s also, as he points out, playing himself, rather than a character featuring some or other facet Roxmouth has to pretend to inhabit. This is an artist at the top of his game, simply enjoying what he does, aided by a selection o the best of the local session musician community.
Relatively less spotlit but no less prominent in terms of the effectiveness of the show as a whole are the arrangements utilised for the songs, courtesy of the show’s conductor Bryan Schimmel. Compositions already notable for their balance of complexity and accessibility are amped up in terms of their intricacy – imaginative time signatures; soaring key changes and more – but just as appealing (in some cases; more so in others) as the originals. Schimmel and Roxmouth know each other well – indeed, the latter’s From The Footlights studio album was co-produced by the former – and Schimmel is better placed than most to press all of the singer’s musical buttons.
Watching Roxmouth respond to the backing of his sublime band, which includes the brilliantly-named horn section “The Brassholes” and the relentlessly on-point rhythm-keeping of Rob Watson, is particularly exciting for audience members with any knowledge of music theory and technique. At around two hours, there’s plenty of stamina involved as well, but it’s the combination of passion and precision that thrills. There are occasional breaks for the singer, filled by guests Nadine, Harry Sideropoulos, Tracey-Lee Oliver and Lindiwe Bungane (who leaves absolutely nothing behind in her rendition of And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going, from Dreamgirls), but this is Roxmouth’s show.
As such, it’s arguably the biggest statement of intent yet in a career that’s already been about taking giant strides forward rather than hedging bets. From The Footlights is not populist entertainment, and that’s by design. Roxmouth’s apparent desire to educate his audience – to ultimately have them feel as strongly about his beloved art form as he does, even if it means taking them out of their collective comfort zone – means he is not taking the easy route to growing that same audience. But on the evidence of this show, sticking to his principles is likely to make Roxmouth an even more formidable industry presence, and he deserves kudos as much for shifting the boundaries a little as for providing world-class entertainment.